In a move aimed at discouraging the young from smoking, UK Prime Minister David Cameron reopened the debate about plain tobacco packaging in late November and asked the pediatrician and non-executive chairman of the quality and clinical risk committee of NHS England Sir Cyril Chantler to undertake an independent review of public health evidence for standardized tobacco packaging. The review will focus on whether or not the introduction of standardized packaging is likely to have an effect on public health - and what any effect might be - including in relation to children's health. The review is due by March 2014.
The move came as a major u-turn, with critics denouncing it as a political move, a "tactical delay" before the next general election. A consultation on plain packaging was already carried out by the government last year and Cameron appeared to distance himself from plain packaging in July, saying that the government needed more evidence on its impact before deciding whether to take action.
For his part, the chairman of the European Carton Makers Association's (ECMA) Tobacco Forum and COO of tobacco packaging producer Amcor, Jerzy Czubak, welcomed the idea of an independent review that would examine the evidence in detail. However, he said he considers it too early to make a balanced assessment of the real long-term market impact of the Australian policy.
In April 2010, the Australian government announced that it would introduce legislation to mandate plain packaging of tobacco products from January 1, 2012, with full implementation by December 1, 2012. The move made Australia the first country to legislate for standardized packaging.
"ECMA felt that the UK government made the right decision by delaying its move [in July] on plain packaging. Such a short review process, only a year after [it] was introduced in Australia, is unlikely to be able to produce an evidence-based decision," said Czubak.
Revised EU directive on track: The issue of plain tobacco packaging is also moving forward at the EU level.
The European Commission adopted a proposal for a revised Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) in December last year. On October 8 this year, the draft law to make tobacco products less attractive to young people was passed by the EP. The approved text states that all cigarette packs should carry a health warning covering 65% of their surface. Fruit, menthol flavors and small packs should be banned and electronic cigarettes should be regulated but as medicinal products only if they claim curative or preventive properties.
The EP also chose to remove the requirement for "cuboid-shaped packs" from the text. "MEPs recognized that requiring a cuboid shaped pack would prohibit complex features such as rounded or beveled edges, which would fail to add any additional health protection to the proposal but would remove a barrier to counterfeiting and encourage larger volumes of cheap, unregulated products to enter the marketplace," said Czubak.
While ECMA's Tobacco Forum packaging experts support a policy protecting public health, they oppose measures requiring plain or standardized packaging, arguing that there is a lack of clear evidence about the effectiveness of such a policy. They also say there is a risk of significant negative side effects. According to them, the introduction of plain packaging will have counter-productive effect of making it easier and cheaper to mass produce counterfeit cigarette packaging. "The complex manufacturing process, entailing expensive machinery and skilled labor used to produce packaging today, is a significant barrier to counterfeit," Czubak said, adding: "Simplifying this process can only make things easier for illicit production."
A final legal text is likely to be agreed by the end of the year. One of the issues still under discussion is the regulation over the shape of the pack. "We want this to include flexibility for packaging companies to manufacture packs with rounded or beveled edges," said Czubak. Should a revised TPD prevent the packaging industry from producing complex packaging products, he added, then it will have a negative impact on the sector. "The industry has invested significantly in recent years in hi-tech printing and packaging facilities, which could be undermined depending on the final agreement reached by EU policymakers," he said.
Once the legislation is approved by the Council and Parliament, EU member states will have 18 months to translate the Directive into their national laws. The deadline for phasing out flavors in general is three years, with five additional years for menthol. Tobacco products that do not comply with the directive will be tolerated on the market for 24 months and e-cigarettes for 36 months.
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